As part of their Food for 9 Billion series, the PBS Newshour toured Costa Rica to explore how sustainable farming practices are ensuring a sustainable food supply. The video captures the spirit of what we're trying to do: maximize the productivity of our partners' for the long term while preserving and regenerating forest cover.
The Guardian UK recently did an article looking at attitudes towards REDD - Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation - among Panama's indigenous communities. Our partner community Arimae was featured in the post discussing their struggles to keep illegal loggers out of their rainforest reservation.
Panama's coordinating body of indigenous groups, COONAPIP recently decided to withdraw from applying for a REDD project that would pay them to keep their forests standing. Their withdrawal from the REDD negotiations exposes indigenous groups' concerns about colonization of their land and loss of control of their natural resources.
Indigenous groups in Panama tend to have a different philosophy about land management, preferring to keep more of their reservations forested and only selectively harvest timber. That belief clashes with land-hungry settlers who want to clear land for agriculture or cattle ranching. We see this clearly in Arimae, where illegal loggers encroach into the communities' roughly 8,000 hectare reserve in search of tropical woods and land to raise their crops and cows.
In fact, much of the land lease payments that we've made to Arimae has gone to paying legal fees related to keeping squatters out of their forests. Even though we'd like them to be able to spend that income on community development projects, we recognize the short term need that this capital plays in strengthening control of their land.
But our impact in Arimae goes beyond supporting their legal battles. We've been working with the community for more than six years to introduce agroforestry and activities related to regenerating and sustainably managing their natural resources. In this way we believe that the Panamanian government will recognize that this more sustainable model is also a "productive use" of their land, and one that makes more sense for indigenous communities throughout Panama.
We're not sure whether indigenous groups in Panama will get behind REDD. It has the potential to provide much-needed income to indigenous groups, but also raises concerns about their economic and legal ability to defend their land from settlers. Whatever happens, we will continue partnering with indigenous groups in Panama to expand the economic and environmental promise of sustainable agroforestry.
Last week we participated in Agora Partnerships' Impact Investing in Action conference held at Georgetown’s business school. Planting Empowerment was invited to pitch as one of the “top early stage, for-profit companies creating social value around the world”.
It was heartening to see more investing and actions being taken to support startup social ventures. The 21 companies presenting were collectively pursuing more than $50,000,000 of investment to further scale their businesses. Interestingly, the Inter-American Development Bank was heavily represented, mostly because the conference’s focus on Latin America. However, they’re investing very little into the companies that presented (but are investing indirectly through already established funds).
The topic of measuring impact continues to be a focus and a favorite of many. All of the companies that went through Agora’s accelerator came with a GIIRS score. While admirable, not one investor asked about a GIIRS score during the deal room presentations we attended. This makes us think that measuring impact still seems like an ivory tower proposition for most companies and potential investors. It’s important, yes, but is it worth the extra costs and time commitments for an entrepreneur to do if it doesn’t make their companies more attractive?
While most impact funds are looking for deals between $500,000-$5 million, there does seem to be slightly more capital flowing towards enterprises looking for less than $500,000. We expect that the growth of equity crowdfunding will increase support for SMEs at the startup level, and hopefully bridge them to mezzanine-level, where there seems to be plenty of capital looking for deals.
Building on the lessons we learned during our biochar training in February, we spent the past couple of weeks experimenting with producing biochar in our Arimae location. Biochar has been used for thousands of years as a way to increase soil fertility and crop productivity, something the soils in the Darien province really need.
The key with producing biochar is controlling air flow to the burn—permitting as little oxygen as possible from reaching the flame. For this reason we used a pit burning method for our first batch of biochar.
Check out all the photos from the burn »
We spent a couple of days chainsawing waste logs and digging a big hole to contain the logs, then fitted the hole with a bamboo chimney to regulate air flow to the burning logs. Once we ignited the stacked logs in the pit, we covered the fire with some wood and zinc, to further restrict air from reaching the burning logs. Unfortunately, we realized that our chimney was much too narrow for sufficient air flow, so not much wood was burned. We then extinguished the fire with water, and let it cool overnight for collection the next day. The next morning, when we came to collect the biochar, we realized that we hadn’t totally extinguished the fire the day before. All that was left in the hole was ash.
Learning from this setback, we didn’t use a chimney or covering for the pit for our next couple of burns. Good results. To collect the biochar from the toasted logs, we whack the log with a shovel or a machete, the biochar chips right off, and we re-stack the log on the fire and re-ignite it to produce more.
During the last burn, we decided that we were losing too many small chunks of biochar in the soil of the pit, so we tried to burn a pyre in the open. By separating the embers from the logs as they burn, we are able to really control the fire and collect the charcoal before any of it burned to ash. Even though a torrential downpour attempted to thwart our fire-building efforts, the flames were so hot, they burned through four hours of constant rain and actually dried us as we collected the charcoal and attended to the fire.
All told, we produced six big sacks of fertilizing biochar—that’s about 300 lbs. of yield-increasing, soil-enriching goodness! If we continue biochar production, we plan to build a simple hut to protect us from the elements; since it seems the wet season has arrived, we’ll need it.
Learn more about our impact in sustainable forestry.
This week we'll be making biochar in the Arimae plantation. Biochar is relatively easy to make and should improve the quality of the soil in our projects, meaning higher plantain yields and faster growing trees. It's also a great way to take advantage of the fallen trees and branches that are normally a nuisance.
In February, Liriano, Yin, and I visited regional biochar expert and former Peace Corps Volunteer Alan Foster in Catrigandi, Panama Este to learn how to make biochar. We started the process by sawing mango tree branches into equal-sized logs and stacking them into a big five foot pile. Then we lit the pyre on fire, evoking the spirit of the limbs that were sacrificed for sake of soil improvement. Check out all the photos.
During the burn, Alan trained us to be aware of the changes of the smoke over time: white or light blue smoke means that moisture is being burned off, while darker smoke means the wood is burning. Once the wood was slightly crisped we extinguished the smoldering logs with water, and using a shovel we scraped off the biochar from the logs. Through a four hour burn of a 4x4x5 pyre we collected a sack of biochar, and this process is repeated.
We are adapting our process slightly due to the space limitations in our plantations: rather than stacking the wood in a pile, we are going to dig a pit. And because there is no water nearby, we are going to extinguish the smoldering by sealing off airflow by burying it.
This biochar is like an uncharged battery: it can potentially absorb nutrients from the soil and actually reduce yields! To "charge" it, Alan will use his biochar as a dry material for his composting latrine. We plan on adding our biochar to a mix of rice husk and chicken excrement to create a rich organic fertilizer, and expect to use this in the tree nursery for healthier trees and fatter plantains.